This weekend HoZac Records and the resurrected Blackout Fest will play host to legendary Boston punk act the Nervous Eaters, who helped define that city's underground scene in the late 70s and whose songs have since been covered by artists as varied as Neko Case ("Loretta") and the New Bomb Turks ("Just Head"). Ross Fisher of 90s Chicago punk band the Brides—who are reuniting to play the Blackout Fri 5/27—interviewed Nervous Eaters front man Steve Cataldo for this week's Artist on Artist. The Nervous Eaters headline Sat 5/28, and the festival kicks off with an art opening and show Thu 5/26; it's all at the Velvet Perineum, 2515 N. Milwaukee. For more on the Blackout, see Sharp Darts, page B10.
Ross Fisher: Give a brief history of the band and what things were like in the Boston scene.
Steve Cataldo: We got together in I think it was '72. We were writing a lot of material in the bass player's basement, and ultimately we worked our way into being the house band at the Rat [the nexus of Boston's music scene]. But before then we got together with Willie Alexander [who went on to join the Velvet Underground]. He had played in a group called the Lost. They did one album for Capitol Records. They always knocked me out. We saw him play piano at this little club called Sandy's. He was playing solo. We came up to him and said, "We remember seeing you play in the Lost; you were great. Have you ever thought about getting a band behind you?" He said, "No, but that would be cool." So we brought him to our little basement and cut "Mass. Ave," which is like the first do-it-yourself 45. Things took off from there. We got on college radio and opened for just about every group that came to the Rat, and it was an extensive list.
You guys wrote vulgar tunes. Was there ever any static you'd get from the clubs for saying "motherfucker" onstage?
No, as long as you filled the club, they didn't care. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the coolest idea.
Why do you say that?
I think it probably would have been a little healthier to make more classic records. I mean, we did some classics, but it held you back a little bit—later on, I'm talking about. Not then. Nobody cared. We'd do songs like "You Smell Like Fish" and they were quite popular. People would be yelling "Fish! Fish!"
I know the Velvet Underground played a lot in Boston and quite a bit of the stuff that the Nervous Eaters did really reminded me of the Doug Yule-era, post-John Cale Velvet Underground.
Oh yeah, we were into the Velvets heavily. Jeff [Wilkinson], our drummer, was a big influence on the band. He's passed away, but his influence lives on in a lot of bands. He'd drag us to see the Velvets. Everybody was digging Lou Reed and we went down to New York and met them and got invited to his apartment.
Towards the late 80s there was a resurgence on the super-underground level of your band's early recordings through a series of bootlegs like Killed by Death and Feel Lucky Punk, which led to bands of the early 90s covering your songs. I was wondering how you felt about these bootlegs in the sense that it is a form of robbery.
Back then, pre-Internet, it didn't get back to us that fast. But once the Internet struck, ASCAP was sending me information about what was going on all over the world. When groups would cover my song, they'd send me a version of it and say, "Hey, what'd you think?" Some groups wouldn't, and that used to tick me off because they'd maybe try to pull it off like their own tune. But now they can't because everybody's pretty hip to the band and we've got another resurgence going.
There was a hiatus as far as recording. Is there a reason for that?
Life things get in the way, but we've been back in the studio with Ace of Hearts Records. They issued a bunch of bands on a compilation called Wasted Years Volume 1, and we just finished adding our songs to Wasted Years Volume 2.
Years ago finding Nervous Eaters songs was kind of difficult. Now it's something you can just go pick up—new releases and reissues and everything.
It's better for us because it helps us gig more and get better gigs. As far as the major labels go, they're interested in Gagas and Madonnas. Groups like yours and mine, we're better off with independents. You get more attention and you get together with groups that are like yourself.
I think you're gonna play to a die-hard audience. Whether or not it's gonna fill up every venue that you play, whatever. But as long as the people that are there are rocking their asses off, that's what it's always been about for me.
Yeah, I agree.
Does it feel like finally fuckin' people are paying attention?
I just think we developed new audiences. We got all the old fans and a lot of new ones. And college radio continues to support us, and that's a good thing.
Do you see a lot of younger people coming out to your shows?
Oh yeah, and they're singing the words, which is a good sign. That's the best.